Illustration by Cecilia Ruiz
Illustration by Cecilia Ruiz

The Working World

The Working World: How tech startups are evolving in newly connected Cuba

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Published on September 03, 2019

Illustration by Cecilia Ruiz

Building a business takes enormous effort no matter where your startup is based. But imagine trying to establish an internet company without having reliable internet service.

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Until December 2018, that was exactly the challenge facing entrepreneurs in Cuba. Before Cubans gained 3G mobile Internet access this year, many relied on an underground substitute for the internet known as “El Paquete Semanal," a package of digital content that was downloaded from the web and distributed manually on a flash drive

Now Cubans have 24/7 internet access, and tech companies are evolving. In part five of our series on The Working World, we’ll hear from startup founders Martin Proenza of YoTeLlevo, Yon Gutiérrez of AlaMesa, and Yudivián Almeida Cruz of IslaData Cuban Enterprises to learn how expanded internet access is impacting their businesses. 

Catering to the needs of an emerging culture

Yon Gutiérrez, Design Director at AlaMesa, says his company initially focused on providing information about the emerging culinary scene. “We considered the fact that it was not only the restaurants in Cuba that were changing, but the entire culinary culture—the way people ate at home and how people interacted with each other through the act of having a meal,” says Yon. “We decided to cater the needs of this emerging culture. That’s how we developed an online booking and prepaid service, offering tables in hundreds of restaurants, overwhelmingly used by travelers visiting our country in order to secure tables in the most popular venues.”

Along the way, though, they discovered that giving users contact info for restaurants wasn’t enough. “They needed to be provided with the tools to make the choices that were best for them,” Yon explains. “So we added recommendations and moved towards them leaving comments and sharing info."

"I didn't expect the full internet to come so suddenly, but it came. Now we are in a hurry to develop our infrastructure for mobile internet.”—Martín Proenza, founder and CEO of YoTeLlevo

Expanding services to take advantage of improved mobility

Martín Proenza, founder and CEO of YoTeLlevo, says he didn’t begin with a big, ambitious mission. He just wanted to provide a way for travelers to connect with taxi drivers. Unlike Uber or Lyft, YoTeLlevo is a research tool that enables people planning a trip to Cuba to contact drivers and schedule rides when they arrive. “I knew drivers were having trouble getting customers. I thought I could be some help for them, an additional source of customers.” 

Martin says when the WiFi hotspots were introduced in 2016, it represented the first time everyone in Cuba could access the internet. “At that time, we didn't develop a mobile app, because going to the WiFi zones for drivers was very difficult,” says Martin. “So there was no reason to develop a mobile app. I didn't expect the full internet to come so suddenly, but it came. Now we are in a hurry to develop our infrastructure for mobile internet.” 

“For our platform, based online, it will be essential that people use the Internet frequently. But we are betting on a continuous increasing of the access.” —Yudivián Almeida Cruz, Co-founder and Director at Isladata

Working around access and connectivity issues

When Martin founded YoTeLlevo, his internet business didn’t even have WiFi access yet. For a long time he could only access the internet at his day job. “It was very slow, very limited,” says Martin. “You couldn’t consume all that you wanted. We had a kind of internet quota for the month. At night, I didn't have internet at all. I had to download webpages while I was at the job.”

Yudivián Almeida Cruz, Co-founder and Director at Isladata, says internet connectivity continues to be an issue. “Access is growing, but still not enough. For our platform, based online, it will be essential that people use the Internet frequently. But we are betting on a continuous increasing of the access.” Yudivián adds that another ongoing challenge is lack of access to services that are either blocked to Cuban businesses due to the embargo, or too expensive to use. “Also, it is difficult to get a lot of public information in Cuba, so we are always trying to find new information sources or even information proxies.”

Adjusting focus to follow user preferences

Yudivián says his company’s original mission was to collect, process and present relevant data about Cuba to interested customers. “Since then, we've been continuously monitoring, collecting, processing, and building visualizations based on data from public services of the Cuban economic and social life.” 

“We try to combine our research background and skills with the purpose of creating a platform that provide[s] insights about Cuba from economics to social issues,” says Yudivián. “Through the years, we have changed focus somewhat on specific markets and sectors, depending on the availability of data and what we perceive our user base requires or prefers,” says Yudivián.

Adding features to serve a growing number of users 

Yon explains that with the introduction of 3G/4G capabilities, more people have 24/7 access to the internet. “We would hesitate to call it ‘full’ (internet access) since several companies deny us service, since we are located in Cuba,” says Yon. “What has changed is the amount of users and the volume of interactions they have with the platform, along with the readiness of their response to our proposals. Our features have evolved to suit the needs of a large mass of users who are connected around the clock. For example, we are working to make reservations and delivery in real time using that connection to alert restaurants with a shorter span of notice.”

"Our features have evolved to suit the needs of a large mass of users who are connected around the clock."—Yon Gutiérrez, Design Director at AlaMesa

Martin says with 3G, it’s easy for his operations team to run their business from their phones. “Also, you can now assume that drivers have internet,” Martin explains. “A couple weeks ago, we launched a mobile app for the drivers. It's kind of a WhatsApp, where they can organize all the conversations with customers in a chat room, instead of doing it through email.”

Countering misconceptions about life in Cuba

When talking with developers from other countries, Yudivián says one large misconception he notices is the belief that Cuban developers are further behind than the rest of the world in terms of tooling, practices and knowledge. 

“This is simply not true,” says Yudivián. “We use the same tools and patterns [as] everyone else, and even though with some limitations. We use the same services and follow the same development paths [as] most foreign software products. The average Cuban developer is as immersed in modern technology as the average developer around the world.”

If anything, says Yudivián, the lack of some commodities could give Cuban developers an edge in some cases, because they’re used to working with low connectivity and don’t rely much on copy-pasting from online forums. “That is one of Isladata’s purposes,” he explains, “To show part of the capabilities that Cubans have in the technology world.”

Seeing potential growth in the future

As Cuban markets grow and attract foreign investment, and the Cuban population becomes more connected and more data-hungry, Yudivián expects Isladata to become “the one-stop service for data-driven decision makers. Both individual users who want to understand markets and make informed investment decisions, and for Cuban and foreign companies interested in Cuban markets alike,” he says. “In the near future, we would like to see Isladata in every device and computer screen, from decision makers, researchers and end users interested in a data-driven and objective approach to the Cuban market.”

Yon anticipates that in five years, AlaMesa will be providing broadly used services and organizing popular events that have a serious impact in Cuban culture. “We will have a seasoned team with a tradition of passion, creativity and enthusiasm for our culture,” he says. “We will be ready to take in all things necessary to make the next jump in our story.”

Martin predicts more people will be looking for internet-related jobs. “Now we have this economy where people are just working for money for many corporations in the world,” he says. “If you check LinkedIn for Cubans, you're going to see people that offer their translation skills. Now that people have internet in their hands, once they start seeing the capabilities of the internet, people are going to start moving there, because there is more money and steady jobs.”